August 2012

Good outcomes

Photo of Michael Acker 
Michael Acker now works in industry.

Like most mentors, I can be pretty clueless.

As professors in graduate institutions, our ideas on mentoring usually began with our own experiences as students and postdocs, and by definition our experiences revolved around how to become professors at graduate institutions. In other words, we begin our mentoring careers fairly clueless about mentoring, at least beyond our narrow view of what the outcome of successful mentoring should be. But from cluelessness can spring enlightenment.

I had a mentoring epiphany recently. It sprang from the career paths of two Ph.D. students who graduated from my lab one year apart. Mike Acker was a student in our umbrella biological sciences program. As he was entering the final phase of his studies, I called him into my office and told him it was time for him to start looking for a postdoctoral position. Note that “postdoctoral position” could technically mean any job after graduating, but in this case I did mean a postdoctoral research fellow position; that’s what I considered the natural path after a Ph.D. Mike was quite happy about this and did the requisite background reading and thinking, wrote some letters, went on a few interviews and landed a spot in a top-flight lab in a top-tier school. After a very successful stay there, he was hired as a senior scientist by a major pharmaceutical company. That certainly seemed like a successful outcome of a graduate education.

Julie Takacs was a student in the same graduate program. A year after Mike graduated, I asked Julie, whose studies were then also nearing completion, to come and meet with me to discuss her postdoctoral plans. I expected her to be happy about this request, but instead I thought I detected a distinct note of anxiety in her “OK.” And she did not come to see me. A week later, I again asked her to stop by. Again, no visit. It wasn’t until the fourth request that Julie finally came by. When I asked her what she wanted to do next, she sheepishly said that she was “pretty sure” she didn’t want to do a research fellowship and that what she was really excited about was the possibility of teaching science in a high school. It took me a second to take this in. It’s not that I thought it was a bad idea; it’s just that I had never really thought about it before. In retrospect, I should have thought about it, because Julie had spent much of her spare time in graduate school mentoring high school and college students, and she clearly excelled at it and took great pleasure in it. But all my training and expectations were geared toward my own experiences and goals – running a research group at a university. I was, to put it mildly, clueless.

Photo of Julie Takacs 
Julie Takacs is now with Teach for America.

But as the gears slowly turned, I realized that Julie, with her scientific knowledge and research training, could have a profound, positive impact as an educator. In fact, if you consider how many students she and others like her could turn on to science and the positive effect an influx of science-literate young people could have on our country, it is hard to argue against her chosen career path. Julie is now a Teach for America corps member teaching chemistry at an inner-city high school in Baltimore. I consider this as great an outcome of graduate education in the life sciences as Mike’s position as a researcher.

The problem is that although more and more of us are having this epiphany, not everyone has yet been converted from the research-is-the-only-positive-outcome dogma to the idea that society will reap significant benefits by having well-trained scientists in a wide variety of fields, such as secondary school education, law, business, public policy, politics and journalism. Luckily, you don’t have to take my word for it, because more important and famous people than me are saying the same thing. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science magazine and former president of the National Academy of Sciences, recently called for the creation of a profession of “science adapters”: Ph.D. scientists who will work in school districts across the country to develop new science curricula and better methods for teaching science in K–12 classrooms (1). Jeremy Berg, former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, in summarizing a recent NIGMS report that concluded that society would benefit from scientists entering a wide variety of careers, was quoted in Science as saying, “We need to remove the pejorative aspect of the term alternative careers” (2). A more recent National Institutes of Health report on the scientific workforce comes to the same conclusion (3).

Even without the wisdom of luminaries such as Alberts and Berg, the numbers speak for themselves: Only 15 percent of students who obtained Ph.D.s in the life sciences between 2000 and 2001 were in tenure-track faculty positions in 2006 (4). Even if it takes some students seeking academic jobs longer than six years after graduation to find them, it has become clear that the majority of Ph.D. scientists we are training today ultimately will follow alternative career paths. And our students themselves have figured out that they can have a positive impact on society using their scientific training in a variety of ways; two recent studies showed that a majority of life sciences graduate students are considering careers outside of the traditional academic research path (5, 6). Don’t we owe it both to our students and to society to help guide our trainees toward the careers that suit them best regardless of whether they fit our mold? And shouldn’t we consider any career path that benefits from a student’s scientific training as a good outcome?

One of the goals of the ASBMB mentoring committee is to spur us to think more deeply about our roles as mentors. I hope that this column and the ones that follow will encourage you to think about what you consider to be a positive outcome for your trainees and to reflect upon what you can do to help them achieve their career goals.

  1. 1. Alberts, B. “Science adapters wanted.” Science (2011) 334:1031.
  2. 2. Mervis, J. “NIH Report Urges Greater Emphasis on Training for All Graduate Students,” Science (2011) 331: 525.
  3. 3. Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director “Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Draft Report” (2012): 
  4. 4. Stephan, P. How Economics Shapes Science (Harvard University Press, 2012).
  5. 5. Sauermann, H. and Roach, M. “Science PhD career preferences: levels, changes, and advisor encouragement.” PLoS One (2012) 7: e36307.
  6. 6. Fuhrmann, C.N. et al. “Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences.” CBE Life Sci. Educ. (2011) 10: 239.


Photo of Jon LorschJon Lorsch is a professor in the biophysics and biophysical chemistry department at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a member of the ASBMB Mentoring Committee.

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